This week, the Cleveland Browns take on the Tennessee Titans. Can the Browns improve to 2-2 after having the bye week to reflect upon their defensive and special teams struggles? Our position-by-position evaluation and game prediction are below.
Brian Hoyer has been very effective in his three starts. He's not turning the ball over, but that's not because he's being too careful with the ball. His decision-making is on point seemingly every play, and before the bye week, we saw the type of accuracy that we came to expect from Hoyer. He has helped elevate the receivers around him to the point where a crew of Miles Austin, Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel, and Travis Benjamin no longer seems like a weakness.
Jake Locker has been has been rattled by pressure -- he's been sacked 8 times and has thrown 4 interceptions in 3 starts. He missed last week's game against the Colts with a wrist injury, and although he practiced all week, it's hard to say if he'll be at 100%. Locker and the Titans' offense hasn't played well in a month, and Locker doesn't seem like a quarterback who will just slide into a groove.
The Titans and the Browns have both run the ball effectively this season. Tennessee seems to be in a bit of a quandary with their running back situation, though: they have split carries among Shonn Greene (33), Bishop Sankey (24), and Dexter McCluster (16). There hasn't been a clear enough direction for an individual running back to find his groove, but it seems like Sankey could be emerging as the lead back soon.
One could point to Cleveland's situation and say they are in a similar boat with a trio of running backs, but I think we'll see more decisiveness with how they are utilized. Kyle Shanahan found a way to do it in Washington, sticking with Alfred Morris as his main back. I think Ben Tate will be the featured back this week with Isaiah Crowell seeing some reps behind him.
Cleveland gets the advantage here because of the clear direction they have and the greater committment to the running game (by virtue of still being competitive in games later).
Delanie Walker, in his 9th season, is on pace to shatter his career numbers. Through four games, Walker has 22 catches for 317 yards and 3 touchdowns. Unfortunately for the Titans, the rest of their receivers haven't matched Walker's level of play. As these numbers from ESPN's Stats and Information indicate, the Titans' wide receivers have been a detriment to the offense.
Jordan Cameron's shoulder is reportedly in better condition after having the bye week to rest, so he could finally be ready to return as a threat in the offensive gameplan. At wide receiver, Andrew Hawkins has been one of the most effective receivers in the NFL so far, and there's no reason to believe he won't keep it up. Miles Austin has been the reliable veteran, and Travis Benjamin (stretching the field) and Taylor Gabriel (run blocker) are filling their niche roles well.
Who would have thought that the Browns' starting offensive line would have adjusted to the zone blocking scheme so well? Heck, Pro Football Focus is reporting that John Greco still hasn't allowed a single pressure all season, and that type of solid play will no doubt help mask any weakness that Mitchell Schwartz might have at right tackle.
The Titans' offensive line has done well against the run, but they've been terrible in pass protection, with a lot of the issues starting at the center position and then branching outward. The struggles at guard have been particularly surprising, as more was expected out of Andy Levitre and Chance Warmack.
Browns head coach Mike Pettine pointed out how good Titans defensive end Jurrell Casey is during a press conference this week: "I think (Titans DT) Jurrell Casey might be the best defensive player in the league that nobody’s really heard of. He jumps off the tape when you watch him play. He’s outstanding against the run. He has a lot of sack production as well. He’s very disruptive. He’s a guy who we have to be very aware of where he is in the matchup."
Overall, the Browns should have the deeper and more talented unit, but I still challenge them to heighten their quality of play so far. The defensive line has been my most disappointing unit of the season so far, and Desmond Bryant has a glute injury that made him limited in practice all week. He'll be questionable on gameday, as injuries have been a constant issue for him since coming to Cleveland.
The Browns plan on utilizing Barkevious Mingo as more of a coverage player, which DBN's Tim Miller went into detail about here. I hope they stick with it, because Mingo's pass-rushing abilities have remained too one-dimensional for my liking.
The Titans feature Kamerion Wimbley and Derrick Morgan as their outside linebackers. Neither player has a sack through four games, and after a great first game, Morgan has had an awful stretch of games.
This has to be the week that the Browns' secondary steps up. To a degree, you can say that Drew Brees is Drew Brees, and Roethlisberger and Flacco just have Cleveland's number. If you put those quarterbacks on one tier, though, Jake Locker and the Titans' receivers are on a much, much lower tier. Again, the talent is clearly there in Cleveland's secondary; it's just a matter of execution now.
For the Titans, cornerback Jason McCourty has been playing well, as has safety Bernard Pollard. The big question marks come at the other cornerback positions. The team's other starter was Blidi Wreh-Wilson, who has struggled mightily and is likely out with a concussion this week. Marqueston Huff and Coty Sensabaugh will see action at cornerback, but neither of them have been full-time starting corners.
The Browns appear to be sticking with Christian Yount at long snapper, and Travis Benjamin has vowed to be more aggressive with his punt returns. Let's hope neither of those guys end up costing the Browns the game.
The Titans' kicker is Ryan Succop, who missed two field goals against the Bengals a couple of weeks ago, and he hasn't been the most accurate kicker in the NFL. Titans punter Brett Kern is on a pretty even pace with Spencer Lanning. Leon Washington returns kickoffs for the Titans, and while he's had some explosive returns in his career, he might be beyond the point of being a significant threat now.
The Browns played very well on offense the first three games, and I think the return of RB Ben Tate will indeed open things up a bit more. The defense has too much talent on paper, and while I think it's a bit cliche to say that teams can correct their issues during a bye week, this is a case where I think it can actually pan out. One of the reasons? The Titans are not a good team offensively or defensively, and they particularly lack the commanding quarterback presence that has hurt Cleveland's defense. It's been over a year since the Browns have won on the road, but they'll win big here.
Cleveland Browns 34, Tennessee Titans 17
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